Jul 3, 2008

Lifestyle - The Vanishing Point

Astrologers and their ilk have been effectively emasculated in the United Kingdom. As of last month when new consumer protection regulations came into force, they can be taken to court and fined or even put in jail if their various predictions of love, good fortune, etc, don't materialise. They are also required to state their services are for "entertainment only" and not "experimentally proven". The disclaimers have to be put on boards outside, printed on invoices and posted on their websites. Apparently, the Asian community has been particularly vulnerable to the influence of the psychic mafia while the spiritual industry, consisting of UK-based astrologers and visiting babas from India, earn £40 million every year. Therefore, perhaps it's time now the British government also came down on yet another Asian dominated industry whose entertainment value may be debatable but whose claims have not been experimentally proven either. That's homeopathy. There are many reasons why homeopathy can't work but here's the simplest. Samuel Hahnemann, who formulated the system, believed that diseases represented disturbances in the body's ability to heal itself and that only a small stimulus was needed to begin the healing process. In fact, the smaller the stimulus, the better. Meaning, the more diluted the drug, the more effective it would be — a principle he called "the law of infinitesimals". So the way a homeopathic drug is prepared is, if the substance is soluble, one part of it is diluted with either 9 or 99 parts of water or alcohol and shaken vigorously. Then, to make it more potent, one part of that diluted solution is taken and diluted again with 9 or 99 parts of water or alcohol. Then again one part of that doubly diluted solution is taken and dittoed through the same process. And again and again and again to make it more and more and more effective. Dilutions of 1 to 10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (for example, 1X = 1/10; 2X = 1/100; 3X = 1/1,000; 4X = 1/1,000,000; etc) and dilutions of 1 to 100 are designated by the Roman numeral C (1C = 1/100; 2C = 1/10,000; 3C = 1,000,000; etc). By an amazing coincidence, the year 1811, when Hahnemann published his catalogue of homeopathic drugs, also saw the Italian physicist, Amedeo Avogadro, publish his famous Avogadro's Law. The law itself needn't bother anyone except chemists but it does have a consequence called "Avogadro's number" which indicates the limit to which a dilution can be made without losing the original substance altogether. That is, one can keep diluting and diluting the drug and all that happens is one keeps getting more and more water or alcohol in the mixture instead of the drug till a point comes (the Avogadro number) when there's not even a molecule of the drug left in it. This happens at dilutions of approximately 12C or 24X which, as any homeopath worth his sugar can vouch for, is a fairly moderate dose. In fact, so is 30C, which is arrived at by first diluting the drug to a hundredth part and then repeating the process 30 times. It's about the same as taking a grain of a substance and dissolving it in millions of spheres of water, each equal to the diameter of the entire solar system. Or as one wag put it: "That's comparable to dipping your car key in a river, going some hundred miles downstream, taking a few drops of water out of the river, and then using it to start your vehicle." Hahnemann, however, was not a fool. He also realised that diluting a dye, for instance, doesn't result in a deeper hue, just like adding less sugar doesn't make the coffee sweeter. But he had a way out. His theory was that all that shaking at every stage of the dilution left behind a "spirit-like" essence that cured by reviving the body's "vital force". Giving, as it were, the patient at least a ghost of a chance of getting better. Which, besides invoking the placebo effect, is all that homeopathy does

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